Hoist the pints and let the bells ring, Gentle Giant remasters are here! Former GG member Derek Shulman, who happens to be the president of independent record company DRT Entertainment, is releasing a few of the band's classic albums in remastered 35th Anniversay Editions on his label, and the first one we are looking at is the 1975 release Free Hand, certainly long considered one of GG's best albums by their many fans worldwide.
Anyone who owns a CD copy of this album on any of the various labels it has appeared on, will instantly have a huge smile appear on their face after one listen to this remaster. It's like hearing Free Hand for the first time, the way it was meant to be heard. I've personally had a One Way Records copy for ages, and while that always sounded fine to me, this remaster presents the music in a new light, and it is almost like hearing a totally new album. The songs here are vibrant, crystal clear, and brimming with life, with many little instrumental and vocal bits seemingly appearing for the very first time. "Just the Same", the intricate and bouncy opener, majestically kicks things off in grand fashion, with Kerry Minnear's exquisite keyboard melodies the lead in to Gary Green's funky guitar work. This is a marvelous piece to begin with, but now you can hear this song in a totally different way. The Moog work of Minnear is clearer, the vocals of Shulman sound more powerful, Green's guitar playing has more balls, the sax lines more jazzy, and the crisp drum and bass work of John Weathers and Ray Shulman more forceful.
Perhaps the most complex and awe-inspiring vocal piece ever recorded follows, and of course I am talking about the classic "On Reflection". This is one of those songs that probably never appealed to non-progressive rock fans, but to most of us is considered a remarkable achievement. Utilizing a- cappella and medieval vocal fugue styles, the band produced a complex vocal piece that they were amazingly able to pull off live as well. Led by Minnear, the entire band took part in this one, with lead and backing vocals flying all though the mix, as the instrumental parts are played in counterpoint. Simply an incredible piece that is one of the most majestic and complex prog rock songs ever put together. This then segues into the hard rock sounds of the title track, which opens with some dizzying melodies weaved by Green and Minnear, before Derek's passionate and powerful vocals break in alongside Green's angry power chords. Heavy and complex, "Free Hand" remained a popular song for years to come, and the remastered version here sees Minnear's keyboards equally at home next to Green's guitar work. Both players contribute some of their best work here on this one.
"Time to Kill" is a more laid back number at times, mixing pop and jazz styles with the hard rock sounds that are prevalent on the title track, and shows off the sultry vocals of Shulman and the deep and gymnastic bass grooves of brother Ray. Also noteworthy is the multitude of keyboard sounds from Minnear, who contributes acoustic and electric piano as well as Moog. I've detected some great multi-textured backing vocals on this one that are not as recognizable on the One Way version, which add a lot to this song. The band gets atmospheric and majestic on the soaring "His Last Voyage", featuring Minnear's vibes, piano, and vast array of electronic keyboards, as well as sumptuous layers of vocals and Green's intricate guitar passages. "Talybont" is another medieval flavored piece, this time an instrumental, featuring recorder and weaving guitar & keyboard lines. The regular part of the CD ends with the rocking "Mobile", which sees Ray Shulman's violin get utilized alongside some churning hard rock arrangements from the rest of the band. The violin adds a nice element to the intricate lines of Green and Minnear, who despite the complex nature of their playing on this one, never battle for solo time, instead creating exciting melodies for Shulman to throw in some wild wah-wah violin lines over.
A live version of "Just the Same" recorded at the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, NY on July 3, 1976 is included as a bonus track. While many hardcore Gentle Giant fans have no doubt heard plenty of live versions of this song, it's worthwhile mentioning that this rendition is heavier than some of the other versions I have heard, with Green's guitar and Shulman's bass work heavier and more upfront in the mix, as is the bashing drum playing of Weathers.
In short, a classic album just got better. The sound here is greatly improved, and listeners will no doubt hear Free Hand the way the band always intended it.
1) Just the Same
2) On Reflection
3) Free Hand
4) Time to Kill
5) His Last Voyage
8) Just the Same-live bonus track